Thomas Becket: The Tale of the “Turbulent Priest”
On this day in the year 1170, Thomas Becket was killed by supporters of King Henry II of England during a conflict over the rights of the Catholic Church in England.
Here are some things you may not have known about Thomas Becket.
He was born around the year 1120 in London. His father was a merchant and property owner originally from the Normandy region. He studied the trivium and quadrivium and then spent a year in Paris. His father soon suffered a financial setback and Becket was forced to get a job as a clerk. Eventually he worked for Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop sent Becket on missions to Rome and to study canon law in Bologna and Auxerre. In 1154, Becket was named Archdeacon of Canterbury along with other posts. He was appointed Lord Chancellor in 1155.
After the death of Theobald of Bec, Becket was nominated to replace him as Archbishop. His election was confirmed in 1162. He was ordained a priest on June 2 1162 and was consecrated archbishop the next day.
As archbishop he clashed with Henry II over the rights of the church, including the jurisdiction of secular courts over clergy. This disagreement escalated for two years until Henry called a meeting of bishops at Clarendon Palace. There, Henry demanded the church be subject to secular law. Becket refused at first, but eventually agreed to what became known as the Constitutions of Clarendon. Later that year, Becket tried to go to France without permission, which was prohibited by the Constitutions. Additionally, the king would ask him to account for his spending while he was chancellor. He was found guilty on both charges. Becket went in to exile in France for the better part of the next six years.
In 1170, Henry’s son was crowned junior King of England by the Archbishop of York. This act infringed upon the right of the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown monarchs. This led the pope to allow Becket to threaten to censure England as punishment. This threat led Henry to negotiate with Becket. The two reached an agreement on July 22, 1170. Shortly before returning to England, Becket excommunicated the archbishop of York, the bishop of Salisbury and the bishop of London.
The news of the excommunications enraged Henry, who is said to have exclaimed, “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”
In answer to this question, four knights set off to confront Becket in Canterbury. Upon arrival, they demanded Becket account for his actions, which he refused. In response, the knights retrieved their weapons and killed Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
In 1173, Becket was canonized by Pope Alexander III.
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